Sunday, January 30, 2011

Food Memories

Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.  Divide your means seven ways, or even eight.     Ecclesiastes 11:1-2

We buried my grandmother this week.  The last of my living grandparents, her passing marks the end of an era.  Eunice Read Simmons will be deeply missed. 

The celebrations of her life have put me rather behind in my blog writing, along with the rest of my “to do” list.  Tuesday night of last week, I drove to my old home in Florence, Alabama where Grandma had lived in a nursing home her final years.  Her funeral was in Meridian, Mississippi and her burial in Vicksburg.  The trip was a good one, well worth the time spent to properly remember Grandma and to visit again some of the significant places in her life.  But I find myself at the end of this busy week more drained than I could have imagined.

Some of my best memories of Grandma are about food.  I remember dinners at her house which would involve a table filled with dishes traditional to the deep south; creamed corn, heavenly biscuits, green beans which were cooked in pork for so long I’m not sure if it was vegetable or meat that I really enjoyed.  One of my most vivid – literally – memories of her cooking was of the sweet pickles that she made.  Not satisfied with their color when left to themselves, she would use green food color to dye them.  The result could have lit a roadside motel sign.  And they tasted really good.

I don’t have a recipe collection from this side of the family, but I am not completely without ways to remember her in the kitchen.  The Kris Kringle recipe from Christmas came into the family through my grandmother.  I have a number of index cards, neatly typed by my mother, which bear the instructions for dishes that have made their way through the generations to me – and, I hope, beyond.  Cooking and sorting these will be my next blog project.

Though my memories of Grandma are made up of her cooking, her gardening and her practice of faithfulness to God, church and family, all of these things are simply stitches in the greater tapestry of the powerful love that she gave us.  Through a love that was deep and imperfect, human and profound – the variety that all families will share – she offered us the very best that she had.  May we all do as well.

Below is one of her recipes we often enjoyed.  I’m going to make it soon in her honor.  I hope you will too and enjoy it with your family and friends.

Blessed eating!

Angel Biscuits
1 pkg. dry yeast                                1 tsp. baking powder
¼ c. warm water               1 tsp. salt
3 c. plain flour                    1/3 c. sugar
½ tsp. baking soda           ½ c. shortening
1 c. buttermilk

Mix yeast with warm water and set aside.  Mix dry ingredients and cut in shortening.  Add buttermilk and yeast mixture; blend thoroughly with a spoon.  Refrigerate or make into rolls.  (better if made the day before you bake them.)  When needed, make into rolls & let rise at room temperature for 1 hour.  Bake at 357o for 15 minutes or till nicely browned.  Makes about 3 dozen. – Eunice Read Simmons

Friday, January 21, 2011

Comfort Food

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.    Isaiah 40:1

I’m not sure who said it first, but I’ve always heard that the job of a pastor is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  I take this charge seriously.  So it is with this unusual perspective that I make what I consider to be the quintessential comfort food:  chicken and dumplings.  Although I rarely eat it and this was my first time to make it, in my mind it is chicken and dumplings is the food equivalent of being wrapped in a blanket on a cold day.

So I made this meal on a cold day (no other kind being available this January).  I used chicken breasts instead of the fryer because they were simpler and because I had them.  Cutting out the dumplings was fun and easier than I had imagined it¸ but the many that I made and put into the broth became a few large ones in the pot.  I had no complaints, though.  These and the blond brownies made for perfect winter food.

Most of us may not perceive this, but comfort is very easily come by.  Our lives are enormously comfortable, whether we realize it or not.  Most of us reading this will have four walls and a roof, and even if we are stretched a bit thin by the end of the month, or even if we have credit card debt, or even if we are wondering how to pay for our kids sporting equipment or school supplies, we’re probably getting by.  We are likely not wondering where our next meal will come from, or if it will come at all.

Being a pastor – which I hope means being firmly invested in reality – I have to be honest about how I live.  It’s not that hard.

So whether I mean to or not, I frequently take the latter half of the above advice.  I see most of us as relatively comfortable, and if my job is not exactly to afflict, then it is at least to try to nudge good church-goers toward just a little bit of discomfort; a little more knowledge about the world outside, a little awkward contact with people who are different, a little more willingness to give beyond what is easy.  I want us to be uncomfortable with the parts of the status quo that need changing, both in the world and in ourselves.  I want us to be dissatisfied enough to act, to work, to change.

As a result, I might actually forget that God has offered to be our comfort, even when we’re not all that afflicted.  Last night, after I read my son his bedtime story and we said our goodnight prayers, I tucked him into bed.  In his footy pajamas, he climbed under the covers and I pulled his Thomas the Tank Engine blanket up to his chin.  He was the very picture of security and well-being.  I wonder what his life would be like without moments like these, without the safety of his Teddy, his racecar bed and the unconscious confidence that Mom and Dad are outside his door, keeping the world at bay.

Surely we, God’s children, need such moments ourselves.  A lot of them.  Though we are far more likely to think about it – and less likely to admit it – we deeply need to be wrapped in the security and warmth that comes from the care of our heavenly parent.  Just like the warm food that goes into our bodies, this comfort becomes our strength that carries us into an uncomfortable world so that we can make it better.

Blessed eating!

Chicken and Dumplings
1 fryer                                   salt & pepper
½ c. water                           1 can cream of chicken soup
1 ½ c. flour                          1 egg

Boil chicken until done.  Pick meat off bones; then put meat in chicken broth.  Mix flour, water, and beaten egg in bowl.  Roll dough on floured board.  Cut & put in boiling chicken broth.  Cook approximately 15 minutes.  About 5 minutes before done, add soup to chicken and dumplings.  Ann Bass

Blond Brownies (quick and easy)
1 lb. brown sugar                                           4 eggs
2 c. Bisquick                                                     2 c. chopped pecans
Mix and bake at 350o for 20-25 minutes – Wyleen Bass Williams

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating

By Jane Goodall, Gary McAvoy, Gail Hudson

Book Review

A few years ago, I read Jane Goodall’s autobiographical book, Reason For Hope: A Spiritual Journey.  Her story is an amazing voyage of experience from her childhood in rural England to the forests of Gombe in Tanzania.  Goodall’s life has been a remarkable one.  She has been on the cutting edge of chimpanzee research, braving a life in the forest, and discovering many traits in her subjects – including, famously, the use of tools – once thought to be unique to humans.

Her research afforded her a chance to learn a great deal about the chimpanzees, but also, I can just imagine the effect on her soul of spending so much time out in the world as it was created, experiencing the beauty and danger of the wild.  From her time at Gombe, Goodall has dedicated her life to educating the world about Africa and chimpanzees as well as conservation and animal welfare.  Her voice has become one of the most respected in our world today.

So naturally, I was interested when I found that she had helped to author a book about food.  Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating is a call to awareness and action regarding our food and its sources throughout the world.  Goodall covers many issues regarding food production from farming, meat production and aquaculture, as well as discussing the health of our world’s water sources.  While there are numerous different concerns, in the realms of both ethics and nutrition, there is a common theme:  safety, health and sustainability are often sacrificed for the sake of profit.  She writes, for example, of the loss of the small farm along with its traditional ways of maintaining the land. The kind of rugged family farms that we envision as the source of our nutrition are rapidly disappearing to be replaced by larger corporate endeavors who use greater numbers of harmful chemicals and grow in less sustainable ways than traditional farming.  Much of our meat production occurs in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO’s, which carry both ethical and environmental costs and create health risks for the consumer.

It sounds like a lot of bad news!  And it is true that we face some very real challenges, even crises, in our world’s food supply.  But the word “Hope” in the title is not misplaced.  Harvest for Hope helps us to realize that we have both responsibility and choice in our eating.  We readers are offered ways to make a difference in what we eat, decisions we can make to have an impact on the food industry and the world.

Some of Goodall suggestions are farther reaching than many will want to go.  She strongly recommends vegetarianism, for example, citing the health benefits for both individuals and the globe.  She is right – and studies have backed her up – that more vegetables and less meat would be a tremendous benefit to our diet, especially in American culture in which meat is so central.  Still, even those who can’t make this leap are offered many avenues of change through food choice.

What I found in Harvest for Hope is solid, well cited information that can make us aware of the impact of our eating on both our health and our world.  This book gives us tools to make some good choices and leaves us with the call to do so.

Choice, the ability to make our own decisions, is something we hold dear in our land of the free.  Today’s high technology gives us a broad range of choices, and our choices have a greater impact on our world than at any other time in history.  Still, we often fail to make our choices mindfully.  We can be somewhat nearsighted when it comes to the ways our actions impact the world.  The busy-ness of our lifestyles discourages us from learning about and deeply considering important issues, specifically what goes into our bodies.  So if we are to remain true to our conscience – and for many of us, true to our faith – we will have to make the choice to live differently.  To turn our backs for a while on all the things we think we need to do, and take some time to think about what we eat.  Learn about the subject.  Make thoughtful choices.  Feed yourself and the world.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


In The Velveteen Rabbit – and in the kitchen –  Real” matters.  The story speaks of Real as meaning well-loved, having experienced both the joy and the scuffs that come with it.  Real when it comes to food is not very different.

Not long ago, I was having dinner with my husband’s family.  It was a casual get together, and they had picked up dinner at a fast food restaurant that specializes in fried chicken.  I was eating probably my second fluffy biscuit, lavishly smearing honey on it, when I looked at the package of honey that the restaurant provided.  It wasn’t honey at all.  Well, honey was in it actually, but the label called it “honey spread.”  It’s first ingredient was corn syrup.

Recently, I made cheese soup for the family.  I have to say it was incredibly good.  But my heart was heavy as I added the necessary Velveeta.  Now that I make my own cheese, I suppose I take the real stuff a little more seriously.  I have liked Velveeta all my life, and I have to say that the soup was great.  But I cringe a little bit at the artificiality of it. 

Much of what we eat nowadays is artificial or processed in some way.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it should give us reason to stop and think.  In addition to being rarely the healthy option, artificial substitutes cater directly to our taste, or to some other immediate desire (like having something sweetened without calories).  They give us exactly what we want – what tastes good and is easy to consume – all for the purpose of making a sale.   This is not bad in itself, and the line between Real and artificial can sometimes be hard to draw.  But artificials fail to do something important that most Real things in life do.  They fail to challenge us.  They give us what is easy, rather than what will help us grow.  They do not call us to extend beyond ourselves or to increase our experienced. 

Now that I am a cheese maker – if a very amateur one – I think a lot about the vast numbers of types and flavors of cheese.  There are more than I could count, all of them different.  Some varieties of cheese are very accessible, their flavors and textures are familiar and likable.  Some call us to stretch, to think differently.  Any new taste will require us to risk displeasure for the sake of experience.  We might decide we don’t like what we try, but we will be better for having tried it.  Whether we like it or not, a new world will have been opened to us for having had the experience with what is Real.

Our relationships and our spiritual life carry the same potential as well as danger from being Real.  We can easily remain superficial, friendly, distant and without risk, just as we can remain stationary in our spiritual lives.  Or we can experience both the difficulty and the excitement of the new terrain that comes with potential friendship or with our own development.  Navigating the rough edges and enjoying the discovery are a wonderful part of the process in which we grow spiritually and gain true friends.

Using things that are artificial, processed and easy are not bad; they are just the equivalent of playing video games in your living room.  They are pleasant for a while, but can’t touch the possibility of, say, taking a hike out in the open air, seeing new vistas and engaging the Real world.  That’s what I choose.

I’ll probably make this soup again.  While I might quail a bit at the Velveeta, there is a Real relationship that goes with the recipe, and with the making and serving of it.  For now, that will have to be Real enough.

Blessed eating!

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.

But the Skin Horse only smiled.

Cheese Soup
3 cans cream of chicken soup            1 pint half and half
1 ½ cups milk                                       1 lb. Velveeta
1 can Rotel                                            salt & pepper to taste
3 chicken breasts boiled and cut in bite sized pieces

Combine first 7 ingredients and heat through allowing cheese to melt.  Add chicken last. – Marilyn Johnson

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Yes, It Will Hurt

Given my ambitious culinary efforts, I could hardly be surprised when I sustained my first injury.  Wounds, after all, occasionally come with cooking.  And since this is my first, I almost consider it a kind of inauguration; an initiation into the ranks of the cooking veteran.  I sustained this war wound on Thursday while making squash chips.

Squash chips are essentially an attempt at potato chips, only with squash.  I also tried the sweet potato option.  This recipe is just one more campaign in my long struggle to unite my children with vegetables. I had hoped they might be fooled just long enough to try and then like them.  Sadly, this effort shared the fate of many of its predecessors. 

The squash and sweet potato needed to be sliced very thin.  I tried with the peeler, but the chips were too small.  So I got out the grater/slicer.  I have one of the nice Pampered Chef numbers in which you can change out the blades.  I put in the slicing blade and it wasn’t in my hand for five seconds before the worst happened.  You can guess.  But some antibiotic cream, some cussing  and several band-aids later, I was back in the game.

While the injury came – like they all do – as a surprise, upon reflection it was very predictable.  This kind of damage was bound to happen sooner or later.  Anyone who does any cooking can expect to eventually get burned, cut, pinched, bruised or at the very least stained.  It is part of the process.  In fact, it is part of most processes.  Any activity or hobby one might do – especially if one does it ardently and repeatedly – will come with its dangers.  We are likely to know this going in, although it rarely fails to catch us by surprise.  And yet, we decide to take the risk.  The same, of course, is true of life.

Last night, though my daughter ate her dinner well, things went off course at bedtime.  She had one of the longest and most exhausting tantrums she has had in a long time.  We spent what seemed hours putting on pajamas, picking up her room and getting ready for bed.  Sometimes progress stopped completely while she wailed.  Inside I wailed too.  In times like this, I am desperate to respond in the right way, to help her recover and grow up into health, but I have no idea if I am doing that or not.  It is depleting and crushing.

As devastating as these events can be, however, I do accept them as a more or less normal part of parenting.  While there are particular complications in dealing with an autistic child, my experience is far from unique.  There is no parent alive who hasn’t felt the confusion and the guilt of being pushed well past the end of the rope.  In fact, there is no one alive and of adult years who hasn’t at some point been put through life’s grater.

But this is life.  This is the game we play.  God has set us on this path with no promises to shield us from the shrapnel; no guarantees that we won’t get hit, screamed at, stolen from, hurt.  The only promise we are given is love, divine presence and the strength to endure what we probably never imagined we could.  As an added bonus, we are even furnished with grace to grow stronger from what we have been through.  Hurting means we’re living.  And for me, bleeding – just a bit – means I’m cooking.  I’ve decided that I can go on with that.

Blessed eating!

Squash Chips
Slice tender squash very thin.  Dip slices into seasoned flour.  Fry a few slices at a time till brown.  Eat and enjoy.  (May do the same with raw sweet potato.)  -  Ralph Bass

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Ins and the Outs

Happy New Year!  I hope you had as wonderful a holiday as we did and are ready for the adventure of 2011. 

Our Christmas didn’t offer much in the way of rest, but it was made up for in fun and meaning as our families gathered.  Ours was an experience of staying in and going out, of inviting guests and being guests ourselves, of offering and receiving hospitality.  But mostly it was about feasting.

On Christmas, we enjoyed watching Roland practically running laps around the tree following the toy Monorail we bought for him at Disney World.  Vivian handled her presents differently.  She silently gazed at the toy version of Cinderella’s Castle, also from “The World,” taking in its perfection.  It was quite a while before she picked up the toy princesses and other accoutrements to play with them.  Her silence wasn’t the sort of thing a video camera catches well, but it was precious all the same.

My husband’s family came for lunch.  There were 16 of us in all which is a number of guests we rarely reach.  Needless to say there was a lot of food.  Everyone provided something.  My assignment was appetizers.  I liked this job because appetizers can be fun and creative – and they are also finished early.  I made a bread and cheese plate, with thin slices of homemade white bread along with all of my varieties of Christmas cheddar. (Later, when Roland pulled the gummy worms out of his stocking, we had fun placing them disgustingly around the wedges of cheese.)  I baked brie with almonds and brown sugar.  The combination of mildly savory brie with the melted sugar in one mouthful is almost good enough to knock you unconscious.  Rounding out the appetizers was the Chocolate Chip Cheese Ball from the Bass Family Cookbook.  Because I didn’t allow for enough refrigeration time, it became chocolate chip cheese dip.  But it was still good.  We had few leftovers to worry about.

Add it all together – the good food, the family and the snow that started early and fell all afternoon – and we had the makings for the kind of Christmas you only see on the front of cards.  We were all of us tucked away together for a while.  We had no need to go anywhere until the ice threatened to take our mobility entirely.  Till then, we just enjoyed the decorations, the food, the fire and the company.

After a few days of Christmas recovery, we went out.  We loaded up the car and drove to Florida to visit cousins and the Gulf of Mexico.  The beach was gorgeous as ever though we could do little more than watch the cold waves roll in.  Needless to say, food was involved in our visit.  We noshed on Christmas leftovers much of the time, but on New Year’s Eve we had our feast.  We cooked the traditional shrimp, simmered along with low country potatoes and corn on the cob.  We made bread, had pies and casseroles and, of course, all the requisite snacks for watching Bowl games.
Cousins Adele, John and Christopher helping Vivian
and Roland with New Years sparklers

This trip to Florida was more than just a getaway.  Family was our primary motivation.  Our cousins, who owned the condo we stayed in, are probably the closest relatives we have on my side of the family, and also closest to us in age.  While we have connected often over the course of our lives, our relationship has long been mediated through my parents.  Mom and Dad always made the calls and shared the news.  They were the ones who would set up the visits.  Generally, we would just tag along.  This year, we decided to take the bull by the horns ourselves.  While my parents were cruising through the Panama Canal over Christmas and New Year, we got ourselves together with our dear cousins.  Our intention wasn’t just to make a visit in their absence, but to actually build a relationship that is our own, not just proxy.  Lives change, children grow up and parents age.  We decided we wanted to draw closer to our family now before an opportunity was missed.  I’m glad we did.

Our drive home was an adventure, though not a culinary one.  We took a different route than usual and stopped in historic Dothan, Alabama, where murals are painted on downtown buildings representing important events and people in Southern history.  We also discovered Landmark Park, a historical and agricultural learning center.  At the park, an old farm house was surrounded by a syrup press, corn house, smoke house, gardens, and wooden fences that enclosed pigs and horses.  While little was happening on this early January day, it was clear that all of these things were used in season.

In the park was also a small village of historic buildings.  They included a general store, a one-room schoolhouse and a church.  The church was a lovely white building that was completed in 1908, owing “no man anything except to love one another.”  The 35 x 35 sanctuary housed a Presbyterian congregation for 60 years in a neighboring community.  Its lovely white walls were well kept, and the decorative iron fence surrounding it made it very picturesque.  I could just imagine years of Sundays as the faithful went in and out to worship.

As I stood back and looked at the village, however, I had to wonder what it means when the only fenced-in building was the church.  It was a charming picture to be sure, but what purpose did the enclosure serve?  Did it keep Christians safely tucked inside?  Sinners out?

In the church, we spend much of our time and energy arguing over questions of in and out.  Do we focus our attentions inward on Bible Study?  Worship?  Children’s programming?  Or do we leave our walls and our fences to go to a needy world?  Are we to “be” or to “do”?  Do we grow our own faith or work to implant it in others?  Like so many dichotomies, this one is false.

We will spend our lives both in and out.  “In” for rest and prayer, “out” in service and evangelism.  The rest of our lives – our meals, our recreation, our time with family – will be spent in a constant movement from one to the other.  The only danger is stopping; deciding that one location is necessary and the other is not.

What will you do with your new year?  I hope you will spend some of your time “in.”  Go to your closet and pray as scripture tells us to do.  Shut out the world for a while.  Just be you, with God, and see what that process teaches you.

Then take your new self, with all that you have learned in your time in the dark, out to change the world.  Go out to share your transformation, because it is yours alone and sharing it is something that can’t be done by proxy.  Wherever your journey takes you – wherever your ins and outs may be - it will be your journey.  And your journey is your gift to the world.

Blessed Eating!

Chocolate Chip Cheese Ball
8 oz. pkg. cream cheese                                2 T brown sugar
½ c. butter, softened (no substitutes)      ¼ t. vanilla
¾ c. mini semi-sweet choc. chips               ¾ c. finely ch. Pecans
¾ c. conf. sugar                                                 graham crackers
In a mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until fluffy.  Gradually add sugars; beat just until combined.  Stir in chocolate chips.  Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.  Place cream cheese mixture on a large piece of plastic wrap; shape into a ball.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.  Just before serving, roll cheese ball in pecans.  Serve with graham crackers. – Charlotte Smith